Any idiot can cover a firefight: the real trick is getting in, getting out and not
getting yourself killed. Success depends on common sense, solid equipment and most
importantly your backup. In Cambodia, Ly Kim-Song was that backup for many.
Mr Song, as he was known to everyone, died suddenly on Sunday, January 14. He was
Song was born in Svay Rieng province, graduated from Phnom Penh's Sisowath High School,
married Tat Kim Huoy in 1966, and they had three sons, two daughters and seven grandchildren.
In those early years his family depended on Song in a world engulfed by war. An ethnic
Vietnamese with a distaste for Communists, he feared the Khmer Rouge more than the
Viet Cong and in 1973 took his family to Saigon.
There he worked in a soft drink factory, raising his children as the world around
him was flung into disarray.
Song never attended university, but his intellect was formidable. He was fluent in
six languages plus some Russian. His French was parfait and this came to the attention
of the new Communist authorities in Saigon, who were eager to employ him.
But he loathed the thuggery that accompanied Communist rule and decided he would
rather pedal a cyclo. In 1983 he returned to Cambodia and did just that for the next
eight years until he chanced upon Sheri Prasso, first bureau chief for Agence
France-Presse (AFP) since before Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot.
Mr Song was employed in 1991, and with Cambodian journalist Reach Sambath forged
a formidable team that enabled seven AFP bureau chiefs, dozens of journalists and
photographers and hundreds of others who drifted through the office to cover a terrific,
if often troubled, country.
Diminutive in stature (he described himself as "svelte and sexy"), Song
worked his heart out. He translated, spotted errors in news stories, controlled the
accounts, sorted satellite dishes and phone lines, massaged egos, launched and nursed
many a hangover, dealt with belligerent authorities and dilettante journalists and
knew who could be counted on.
He rarely criticized others, but could hardly contain himself when Cambodian politicians
delivered anti-Vietnamese diatribes. Song would calm down quickly but his words carried
a greater sting: "Look at this country, they have learned nothing."
At barbecues and parties I more than once saw Song control an assortment of diplomats,
Khmer Rouge experts, academics and journalists with the learned wit of an honest
man who was the equal of any.
Cambodia is too often criticized for lacking strong characters with an integrity
to match. Journalist Suy Se said it simply: " We are sad by the sudden loss
of Mr Song, a great personality."
Sheri Prasso writes:
Mr Song was my cyclo driver when I first arrived in Phnom Penh in 1991. He impressed
me with his command of French, Vietnamese, two dialects of Chinese, and of course
Khmer, as well as his ability to navigate like the wind through the worst periods
in the history of his two countries.
He had an ability to acquire merchandise on the black market through his many connections,
making the establishment of the AFP bureau possible when there were few resources.
He was a natural choice as manager of the office he worked so hard to put together.
I remember the day that he found us glass windows, imported from Vietnam, to replace
the boards that had substituted for the glass that had been broken since 1975.
Electricity came, and Mr Song knew the only qualified electricians (Vietnamese) in
the country. In those days, AFP had the only free-standing news agency office in
Cambodia, and that would not have been possible without Mr Song.
His gentlemanly adherence to etiquette, which he maintained in the face of the horrors
that went on all around him during his lifetime, is one of the strongest testaments
to the dignity of humankind that I know.
In the hereafter, his indefatigable spirit will now be free from a body that in his
later years caused him fatigue and pain. I know it is soaring high.